Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Thought Ashes Were Light

Angela's AshesAngela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”

So begins Frank McCourt's autobiography. And he's right: he had a hard life. But I still don't see that he had any cause to inflict it on the rest of us. I had a rather unpleasant childhood but at least I didn't write a book about it, and if I ever do it will be with significantly more humor and vivacity than this book contained. It wasn't a bad book, it just has absolutely no redemption.

The plot (spoiler): guy meets and impregnates girl in Brooklyn. Guy marries girl, the author is born. Lots of kids born, lots of kids die, father descends into alcoholism and can't keep work. The family goes "on the dole," more kids die, more drinking, more rampant poverty, cruel family, vicious teachers, etc. Then the war. Dad goes to get a job in England, never sends money. Mom gets sick but lives, Frank learns to steal, then gets a job, saves, steals and whatever else he can do to get enough money to move back to America, and the book ends. But oh look, it's an inclusio: we begin with a broke guy having sex in New York, and we end up with a broke guy having sex in New York. Yay!

Perhaps it's as bleak as it is due to looking back on life: whatever you endure as a child is normal. You have no standard beyond your own experience to judge by, so if you ever move from a difficult life to an easier life, you'll come to view your earlier years with more disfavor. But when you are going through them, they're fun, lively and thrilling, not just such extreme, bland lows as we might remember. Definitely not as bad as he remembers. But, c'est la vie.

I will say that between this book and Beloved, I'm beginning to wonder what kind of masochistic guilt motivates the Pulitzer committee: there's something there that isn't right. Sure, a book with no evil is an evil book, but a book with no good is hardly better.

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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Please Stop Pattering

Kill Me If You CanKill Me If You Can by James Patterson
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It has been rumored among the more unfeeling of my "friends" that Jesse is a cynical man. "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke" (I give all of my friends British accents so I don't feel badly for hating them); "Jesse," they say, "is a bloke who, when confronted with a beautiful, short, single, Calvinistic paedobaptist redhead with a flurry of freckles on her cheeks and a copy of Chesterton in her hands, assumes that she'll either turn out to be his sister, in favor of low-church liturgy, or she'll get hit by a truck. But probably two out of three."

True, not one among them is necessarily the brightest Guinness in the fish tank: I glum no puddles; I wiggle no marsh. I sail the ocean (usually) beating Lucy. Have they not heard my life motto? When I am faced with evils too great to be borne, such as Briana prevailing against me at chess, or Andrew shaving, or Dave, I say "Why so downcast, O my soul? Why so disquieted within me? This shadow too shall resolve into beauty, for if it didn't, then it wouldn't, and that would just straight-up suck." Am I not joyful? Is not this optimism at it's absolute, fatalistic finest?

I say all of this as a prelude to my review of Patterson. If any of you are aspiring smithies of the words, should any of you meander through Anglo-Saxon dictionaries looking for gems to glean, should any of your fingers be as inkstained as Jo March's and you know who I'm talking about because you read everything no matter what kind of feministic drivel with wretched sentence-construction it is, then buy this book. Don't read it yet, but buy it. Five years from now a moment will arrive. You will re-read that first chapter of yours and realize with horror and despair that some thirty-five year old greasy-haired, unemployed twit sleeping till two pm in his mom's basement, that twit, still living off of Doritos and Coco-Puffs, the one who spends his time on-line gaming with twelve-year-olds, he, spawn of the devil that he is, wrote a blog post in ten minutes maintaining that Counter-Strike was totally way more awesome than Halo and his blog post was better written than your chapter. That moment of terrifying clarity will arrive. When it does, and you realize that you write like a twelve year old Pakistani immigrant who learned English for the sole purpose of compiling a phone book, that you can't put your pen to paper without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge, when your only hope seems to be gainful employment or suicide—at that moment, pick up this book, say audibly "this man is a NY Times best-seller," and read it. When you're halfway through, you'll print your manuscript and send it to his publisher complete with a request for an advance and a promise of two new books for him next week.

It was the worst book I've ever finished, and I've read Rick Joyner, Left Behind and Twilight. Was it train-of-thought? Three hundred pages, two hundred chapters? His characters have the depth of a mud puddle on a newly paved street after a drizzle and I know damned well which one I'd prefer spending my time with. Especially if worms are involved. I got it for a dollar, read it in an hour and felt as incredulous as Goliath looking at David, just fewer projectiles.

If prison libraries stock books like this then I think those against water-boarding as "cruel and unusual" have been straining out gnats through their teeth.

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